Skip to content

Biden summit buoys climate treaty hopes

A two-day global climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden ended with leaders and companies pledging to decarbonize the world economy.

Gas and coal-fired power plants at the port of Rotterdam, Netherlands
Gas and coal-fired power plants at the port of Rotterdam, Netherlands (AN/Frans Berkelaar)

WASHINGTON (AN) — A climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden ended on Friday with 40 leaders and dozens of companies pledging to decarbonize the world economy while giving a boost to the United Nations-led climate diplomacy track.

Biden's reversal of his predecessor's dismissal of the climate crisis culminated in the two-day virtual Climate Leaders Summit. It began on Thursday with his administration championing an end to all major economies' reliance on fossil fuel burning and other sources of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The White House announced at the start of the summit, pegged to Earth Day, that the United States will aim to cut its "economy-wide" net emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030.

"The United States is not waiting, the costs of delay are too great, and our nation is resolved to act now," the administration said. "Climate change poses an existential threat, but responding to this threat offers an opportunity to support good-paying, union jobs, strengthen America’s working communities, protect public health, and advance environmental justice."

It also said the United States would strive to reach "100% carbon pollution-free electricity" by 2035 through the use of power plants retrofitted with carbon capture and the nation's 56 nuclear power plants in 28 states, along with curbs on tailpipe emissions, better uses of forests and agriculture and other innovation.

Biden's pledge to halve America's industrial warming gases within a decade is a bid to spur major cuts by other major carbon emitters, particularly China, which is the world's biggest and the nation most reliant on coal. It is the most ambitious climate target set by the United States, the second-biggest emitter, and would almost double what the Obama administration pledged to do under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

"Within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up," Biden said. "The signs are unmistakable.  The science is undeniable.  But the cost of inaction is — keeps mounting."

Last Saturday, the United States and China jointly announced they would cooperate to fight global warming. U.S. special envoy for climate John Kerry and China's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua agreed after two days of talks in Shanghai that they were "committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands."

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced hours before the virtual climate summit that it will raise its target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 46% below 2013 levels by 2030, up from its previous 26% target. Suga also has set a goal of reaching carbon neutrality in Japan by 2050. However, other important economies such as Australia, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia made no such commitments to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres nonetheless said "the commitments and actions announced provide a much-needed boost to our collective efforts to address the climate crisis" ahead of the United Nations climate conference planned for Glasgow, Scotland in November. He singled out Brazil, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the United States for their "new and enhanced" national pledges to cut carbon emissions.

"The leadership of all major emitters will be critical to securing success at Glasgow. It is now urgent that all countries — especially other major emitters — present their 2030 climate plans well before COP26," Guterres said of the planned 26th session of the Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which is the platform for U.N. climate summits, known as COPs. "Today’s summit shows the tide is turning for climate action, but there is still a long way to go."

'Way off-track'

Earlier in the week, two separate reports from the World Meteorological Organization and the International Energy Agency underscored the stakes.

The Geneva-based U.N. weather agency's State of the Global Climate 2020 report on Monday said the year was one of the three hottest on record — as hot as 2016 and 2019 — despite cooling La Niña conditions. The global average temperature was more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times.

WMO said extreme weather combined with the COVID-19 pandemic to set back millions of people in 2020, but the slowdown in the global economy from the coronavirus did not reverse the "accelerating impacts" of global rising temperatures.

“All key climate indicators and associated impact information provided in this report highlight relentless, continuing climate change, an increasing occurrence and intensification of extreme events, and severe losses and damage, affecting people, societies and economies," WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, a Finnish meteorologist, said.

"The negative trend in climate will continue for the coming decades independent of our success in mitigation," he said. "It is therefore important to invest in adaptation."

Guterres called it "a frightening report" that shows the world is getting dangerously close to the Paris treaty’s goal of preventing average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible.

"We are on the verge of the abyss," he said. "To avert the worst impacts of climate change, science tells us that we must limit global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees of the pre-industrial baseline. That means reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. We are way off-track. This must be the year for action — the 'make it or break it' year."

And on Tuesday, Paris-based IEA reported that global energy-related carbon emissions are expected to spike by 5% to 33 billion metric tons in 2021, an increase of 1.5 billion metric tons above last year.

IEA's Global Energy Review 2021 showed that the huge demand for power from fossil fuels, largely driven by coal use in China and other Asian nations, likely will reverse 80% of the drop in emissions that was brought on by the pandemic, bringing emissions to just 1.2% below 2019 levels.

"Emerging markets and developing economies now account for more than two-thirds of global CO2 emissions," it said, "while emissions in advanced economies are in a structural decline, despite an anticipated 4% rebound in 2021."